Working out is hard. If you want the best results, you have to push yourself to limits you didn’t know you had, and strive to do better and better each time.
It takes a toll on your body.
That’s why it’s important to pair an awesome workout plan with an amazing nutrition plan. What you eat is always important, but when you’re hitting it hard in the gym, your nutrition plan before and after your workout might be the most important part of what you eat each day.
From supplements to real food, from what to eat to when to eat, here’s your complete guide to pre- and post-workout nutrition.
Timing is Everything
When you eat goes beyond “before and after my workout.” The key term here is nutrient timing - the specific windows around your workout when you’ll get the most out of what you eat.
This is important for two reasons:
- Fueling your body. You need energy and focus during a workout, and your muscles need to be able to withstand the exertion you place upon them.
- Helping your body recover. If you can’t recover from an intense workout, don’t expect to be able to push it hard the next time you’re in the gym.
Nutrient timing has been debated by fitness professionals ad nauseum, and for good reason. It’s an incredibly important aspect of pre- and post-workout nutrition.
Your body is primed to make the most of the food you put in it at certain times before and after a workout. One commonly-suggested window for timing your pre- and post-workout meals is “one hour before and after a workout.”
While that’s a good recommendation, let’s get more specific. If you eat smaller meals along with supplements around your workouts, studies indicate an optimal window of 3-4 hours. What does that mean?
Let’s say you exercise after work and have your pre-workout meal at 5:00 PM. In this case, you’ll want to have your post-workout meal no later than 9:00 PM - four hours after your pre-workout meal. The 3-4 hour window falls from your pre-workout meal to post-workout meal.
So, of course, the “one hour before and after a workout” window still works, but this larger window gives you more leeway and freedom around how you go about your pre- and post-workout meals. If your workout is only thirty minutes long, you’ve got tons of time before and after your workout. On the other hand, if you’re going for an hour or more, you’ll have to be more aware of the clock.
If you tend to eat fewer, larger meals, that 3-4 hour window can increase to a 5-6 hour window. Let’s say you work out after a big lunch at 12:00 PM. In this instance, you could wait to eat again until 6:00 PM and still get the full benefit of your post-workout meal.
Here are some more examples of how this optimal window looks in action:
- You workout at 5:00 AM, so you eat a light breakfast at 4:00 AM and then a small post-workout meal at 8:00 AM (fitting into the 3-4 hour window)
- You’ve scheduled a noon workout on a Saturday, so you have a big lunch at 10:30 AM, work out at noon, and then have another full meal again at 3:30 PM (5 hours later, fitting into the larger window for big meals)
- You’re a night owl, and work out at 10:00 PM. You don’t want to eat huge meals before bed, so you have a quick carb-based snack at 9:30 PM, workout, and then grab a protein bar at 11:30 PM. Your meals work inside the 3-4 hour window as well - it’s not as if you have to wait four hours to have your post-workout meal if you don’t want to.
The beauty of the 3-4 or 5-6 window is that you can plan around the kind of meal you’re having, not just around these recommended intervals. If you like to eat big before and after a workout, you’ve got more freedom in the way you can time these meals and still get the maximum benefit. Or, if you don’t have time for a sit-down meal, smoothies and protein bars work great as smaller pre- and post-workout meals.
Nutrient timing has been proven effective, allowing you to gain muscle and strength faster than just “winging it.” When you eat is important to ensure your body gets the most out of what you’re putting in it.
Of course, timing isn’t everything (despite what the old saying claims), and that’s where the rest of this guide comes in. It’s time to talk about what to eat before and after your workout.
Time to Get Energized!
So what’s the pre-workout meal all about? It’s about energy. Eating before your workout should be entirely focused on fueling up and prepping your body to crush an awesome workout. This means you need a different meal and supplement plan pre-workout than you do post-workout.
The consensus seems to be that caffeine and amino acids are a necessity for improving energy and performance. Caffeine gets a bad rap, but it’s actually good for you in modest amounts. With many studies looking at the effects of caffeine on workout performance, the encouraging results of this research lends credence to the classic tip of having an espresso or two before a workout.
Amino acids are another necessity, as they help prevent the breakdown of muscles during exercise. This lets you workout longer and, as a result, get more out of your workout.
Studies on the pre-workout use of caffeine and amino acids show a 10% increase in participants’ aerobic capacity (the maximum amount of oxygen your body has access to during exercise).
And that’s all pretty impressive, but what does it mean for you?
An increase of 10% aerobic capacity helps you run farther and faster, and to lift heavier weights longer. That could mean burning an extra 200-300 calories per week from your cardio workouts alone. As an added bonus, on top of burning calories, this extra endurance can help you build muscle and get stronger faster.
Rest and Recover
So you’ve had your pre-workout meal, you’ve hit the gym, and worked as hard as you can - now it’s time for that sweet post-workout meal. The post-workout meal is all about recovery, helping you to reap the rewards from your past workout and to get your muscles ready for the next one.
If you have time for a sit-down meal, cook up some eggs or chicken breast, both of which are great sources of protein. Or, if you’re recovering on the go, try protein bars and shakes along with your Kill Cliff. Greek yogurt serves as a great protein-filled on-the-go snack that can be eaten on its own or mixed into smoothies and shakes to give your post-workout meal a personal touch.
As far as specific recommendations go, studies indicate that around 0.2 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight is the minimum needed to get the optimal muscle-building effect. Even if your goal isn’t building muscle, this minimum recommendation is still important when it comes to maintaining your muscle mass and helping your muscles recover from grueling workouts.
Recovery is key to your ability to perform over the long haul. And protein is a big factor in your ability to recover successfully - whether your goals are building muscle or not.
Whew - that was a lot of data to throw at you. Now, let’s recap all of those tips, thoughts, and recommendations, as well as provide a few extra tips::
- Consider the nutrient timing window (3-4 hours for smaller meals or 5-6 hours with big meals) as more of an upper limit. If you want to eat immediately before and after your workout, there’s nothing stopping you.
- Find what works for you. If you prefer to take your workout nutrition on-the-go, make sure your shakes, bars, and other supplements are hitting the necessary protein amounts. If you have time for a sit-down meal, try to incorporate more whole foods alongside your supplements.
- The 0.2 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight should be taken as a daily minimum. If you’re looking for bigger gains - or if you missed out on protein in your earlier meals - bump that number up as needed.
- Pre-workout, don’t eat “heavy” foods. Your stomach will thank you when you’re banging out heavy sets. Save these foods for your post-workout recovery meal. Trust me… you don’t want to find yourself in a bind at the bottom of a squat!
- Finally, if you work out with a friend, get them on board with your pre- and post-workout nutrition plan. Having someone else on the same page when it comes to nutrition will make a big difference in your ability to stick to your plan.
Pre- and post-workout nutrition can be that “x-factor” that, if you get them right, pushes you into gains and results you never expected. Still, it’s nothing without a solid workout plan, so don’t skimp on your workouts and expect your nutrition plan to pick up the slack.
Ultimately, it’s a synergistic relationship that depends on your fitness and nutrition working in harmony. Use these tips and recommendations to push you ahead, enhancing your workouts to get awesome, exciting gains.
Did you learn anything new from these recommendations? Do you have strategies of your own that weren’t mentioned here? Let us know in the comments below!